The fears of action against the integrity of online services have already started taking shape under Trump’s administration. Ajit Pai, the new FCC chairman, started off his tenure by rescinding inquiries launched into ‘zero rating’ offers of three prominent telecom carriers — AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. This is being referred as a first step towards the deterioration of net neutrality in the modern era.
Net Neutrality, for those unaware, promotes that Internet service providers and the government should treat all data (content and websites) on the web as the same. They should be treated as a part of the internet regardless of the source. Thus, telecom carriers are advised not to charge differentially or discriminate against this policy on the basis of user, content, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.
As for the case in question, the three aforementioned carriers were subject to an inquiry into their zero-rating plans from the FCC under the Obama administration. This move, accompanied by a data cap exemptions (‘or zero-rating’) report, came towards the end of democrat Tom Wheeler’s chairmanship. It was released to advertise the ill-effects of offering data at cheaper rates to lure in a massive number of customers who wish to spend less to stream music and movies on the go.
The programs that came under fire for violating FCC guidelines were: T-Mobile’s Binge On, AT&T’s Sponsored Data, and Verizon’s FreeBee Data 360 programs. Most of the services enabled the consumer to stream content on their own video services (example: DirectTV or Go90) without any data cap restrictions. While on the same network, other video streaming services for the same data cap exemptions.
This practice came under Wheeler’s radar and he determined that all these carriers unreasonably interfered with online video providers to push their own content and platform into people’s faces. At the time, this action was also condemned by the new Republican chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai. There is a possibility that the carrier would’ve been held liable and made to pay up for their unjust behavior against other content providers.
The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau operating under the FCC has now sent letters to telecom carriers under question notifying them of the charges against them being dropped. The letter received by these carriers reads,
The Bureau has closed this[zero-rating violation] inquiry. Any conclusions, preliminary or otherwise, expressed during the course of the inquiry will have no legal or other meaning or effect going forward.
Pai has not only rescinded his stance on inquiries into telecom carriers, he also instructed Wireline Competition Bureau to close an inquiry into Comcast’s Stream TV cable service. This streaming service didn’t restrict itself to data caps and enabled users to stream TV seasons or movies indefinitely. Continuing to add on the same, Pai released a statement saying,
Today, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is closing its investigation into wireless carriers’free-data offering. These free-data plans have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and have enhanced competition in the wireless marketplace.
Going forward, the Federal Communications Commission will not focus on denying Americans free data. Instead, we will concentrate on expanding broadband deployment and encouraging innovative service offerings.
This move is also being supported by other FCC executives such as Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who says,
While this is just a first step, these companies, and others, can now safely invest in and introduce highly popular products and services without fear of commission intervention based on newly invented legal theories.
Thus, telecom carriers in the United States have now been permitted to freely provide ‘zero-rating’ data plans to most of their users. This will overshadow the progress that had already been made on the net neutrality front till date. And we can even expect other reforms and actions along the same lines.